Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.
Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.
Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.
This portion of God’s Word speaks of terrible things for the children of God. David describes for us the seething enmity that prompts the wicked to persecute the church. There are the raging heathen, people imagining vain things, kings and rulers confederating and counseling together against the children of God. All of this produces the threat, “Let us break their bands asunder and cast their yoke from us.” Our human reaction to all of this is retreat, in order to escape so terrible a threat.
But there is more to this Psalm, and it must not be forgotten. We must look heavenward, and formulate a correct judgment of the earthly scene. There we find that God is laughing. He is not laughing at His people, but at the heathen. This is a laughter of derision and holy wrath. The heavens begin to tremble as the voice of the Lord sounds forth: “Yet I have set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.” When this defiant cry comes forth from the throne of God, the wicked begin to tremble. The hot breath of divine wrath falls upon them.
This divine judgment brings assurance to the faithful church, which is yet in the midst of the enemy, that she shall certainly be victorious.
These words are not very popular during the Christmas season. Mere lip service is paid to them. The beautiful arias and choral numbers of Handel’s Messiah fill the air, including “Why do the nations rage?” Yet, if one proclaims the truth concerning these words, he soon sees that they are very offensive to the natural man. They bring untold enmity and bitterness. At this time of the year the hawkers of a universal love of God to all men dominate the airwaves and the pulpits. For them, Christmas is a time of brotherhood for all men. Piously, all men lift their heads heavenward and say, yes, somewhere there is a god that loves all men. So great is His love that He sent Jesus into the world to herald a message of kindness and brotherhood. Did not the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”? This is an example, they say, that as God loves all men and has sent Christ on behalf of them, so we must practice this love to one another. We must help the poor and deprived, spread cheer to the underprivileged, advocate peace among the nations, and help Christ along by carrying the banner of human kindness. Wicked men put Christ to death, but we must resurrect this Christ by carrying on the program that He intended, but failed, to accomplish, because men were so cruel that they nailed Him to the cross.
All of this, of course, is a contradiction of this text. God does not love all men and did not send Christ into the world with a view to the salvation of all men. God’s love is a holy love, a love that is jealous in its very nature. The words of verse 6 are spoken in wrath against all the wicked who try to overthrow the Christ of the Scriptures. God will not allow the wicked to rest complacently in their evil design, not even when they creep into the church. He always sounds forth the terrible testimony that He is a God of consuming wrath. This leaves the wicked sore displeased, but the people of God divinely comforted.
By now you realize that we are dealing with a spiritual battle that must be viewed, first of all, from the perspective of God’s sovereignty. Negatively, it is not true that God willed to establish a perfect universal kingdom of peace in Adam, but that this was spoiled by the devil and the consequent fall of man into sin. Nor is it true that God is now about to make the best of things and save as many of the human race as He can, and that He does this principally by sending Christ in the fullness of time, through whom God will put forth all His effort to save all men. If this were true, then the opposition forces of sin and darkness are sovereign in their own sphere, outside of the direct control of God. This is a blatant denial of God’s sovereignty. The battle of faith is not dualistic, made up of two forces that vie for position, as if the strongest will win.
But positively, these forces exist only because God sovereignly willed it and because He gives them strength to continue in this world. God is the source of all the power by which the enemies rage; but that power is given to them in order that they may be the unwilling servants of the sovereign God. Everything serves the purpose of God. God wills to save His church from the spiritual powers of darkness through Jesus Christ and to bring all the workers of iniquity to destruction. In this way God’s justice and mercy are eternally manifest to His own glory.
Viewing this same battle from the perspective of man, we see that man, under the influence of the devil, continues to exercise his natural abilities in proud rebellion against God. Fallen man is able to think, dream, imagine, and work feverishly at his own endeavors. Since he is under the direction of the devil, all this ability is directed against God and against Christ.
Accordingly, the ungodly take counsel against Jehovah and His anointed Christ and His people, determined to destroy them. They try to do away with the true gospel of salvation by sovereign grace, thus fabricating a Christ after their own imagination. They try to replace the kingdom of Christ with the kingdom of man. They deny the atonement of Christ and replace it with a Jesus who is a good example of human brotherhood. They try to obliterate the heavenly kingdom by holding forth an earthly kingdom of peace and prosperity. All this because men hate God. They reject God and Christ and His love as revealed in the Scriptures. They seek to make God a servant of their endeavors. Thus, they try to destroy all opposition.
This is manifest in all of history. At the dawn of history the wicked tried to destroy the righteous by killing Abel. Pharaoh tried to reduce Israel to bloody subjection. David, a type of Christ, was driven from Jerusalem, in response to which he wrote this Psalm. At the center of history this raging reached a climax. In the fullness of time God sent His only begotten Son, born of a woman, under the law. On that night in Bethlehem His work of salvation began. And the wicked began to rage and to take counsel together, in that Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus. Later we see this same bitterness in the breasts of those in Nazareth. This finally erupted into the volcano of hatred with the shout, “Let Him be crucified.”
This same raging is evident today. The heathen outside and those within the nominally Christian church try to silence the faithful church that proclaims salvation by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. That explains the turbulence of today. Everybody wants freedom, that is, from God’s law, including the law of the Sabbath, of morality, and much more. If they do not get their evil way, they persecute the church.
All of this, however, is sovereignly directed. First, we see that God laughs at the wicked; He holds them in derision. This is not a laughter of pleasure, but it is God’s holy derision against their feeble plot to destroy His anointed. God derides the wicked because they are so proud to imagine that they can actually destroy the witness of the anointed Christ as they live in the world. Proud man will not recognize that the very breath in his nostrils is given him by the God whom he hates. Nor will he recognize that Jehovah overrules all things so that even that opposition is not contrary to His purpose, but serves it. Man imagines vainly that he can overthrow God and Christ. But Jehovah laughs, and replies, “Impossible! I am Jehovah, and my Anointed have I set upon my holy hill of Zion!”
This is evident from history. In the days of Noah the flood came and destroyed all the wicked. Haman plotted to kill the Jews, but God placed Esther in the court of the king. The decree of the wicked Caesar was used by God to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Herod plotted the death of Jesus, but God answers triumphantly, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son!” The Jews plotted to kill Christ secretly, but God so determined all things that His purpose was served even by the raging of Satan, who stirred up the Jews to cry out, “His blood be upon us and our children; moved Pilate to wash his hands of the whole affair, condemning to death one whom he had already declared to be innocent; and incited the people to cry, “Let Him be crucified.”
A shame that Christ died? No! God directed all things. That raging crowd served His purpose in nailing Christ to the cross, so that He could make atonement for the sins of those whom the Father had given Him. God’s answer to the cross can be seen in the words of Christ, “It is finished. Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” The empty tomb is God’s final answer, for He drew Christ up into heaven and set Him at His own right hand and crowned Him with all power, honor, and glory forever.
Thus, we have our Christmas joy. Negatively, it is not found in forming an ecclesiastical union of churches that is not in harmony with the purpose of God’s anointed. Nor is it to be found in a general world peace brought about by the heathen, who rage against the Anointed of God. We must take note, for they are raging now. By craft and scheming the wicked world pretends to have become Christian and claims that all the religions of the world are equal, so that all should be able happily to coexist in one world empire. The church that preaches the atoning blood of Christ and practices her Christianity shall have no place in the kingdom of the Antichrist. Jesus said, “They have hated me, they will also hate you. A servant is not greater than his lord.”
But positively, our joy is that God is sovereign. He is the mighty One who has already set His King upon Zion’s hill. Christ is Lord of all. Let those who walk in darkness, who vainly imagine that the world shall become Christianized, who strive day and night for this kingdom of man, hear the word of the Lord, as He breathes in His hot wrath, “I have set my King upon my holy hill.”
This means that the wicked shall fail; they shall be destroyed forever by the rod of iron. To them Jehovah will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” For the church, this means that she shall surely be saved. Everyone whom God freely willed to be included in the decree of divine election, and for whom Christ died and who reveal themselves as anointed by Christ, shall surely be saved. Even the gates of hell shall not prevail against them. They shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, for all things work together for good to them that love God.
As we once again celebrate the birth of Christ, what greater joy could we have.